As members of J Street U at Kenyon, we wish to establish our active opposition to the Israeli occupation and settlement of Palestinian territories as morally unacceptable and politically unsustainable. J Street U functions as a national student-led movement dedicated to achieving a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We passionately support Israel as a democratic state, and the Palestinian right to the creation of a self-determining Palestinian state.
Our pro-peace position is what prompts us to voice our disappointment with the participation of the American Studies Association (ASA) in the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement by passing their academic boycott of Israeli institutions. The ASA identifies itself as “the nation’s oldest and largest association devoted to the interdisciplinary study of American culture and history”; it was not founded to act as a rectifier of human rights abuses committed by governments abroad. In adopting a policy of barred engagement with Israeli academics sponsored by Israeli institutions — many of whom are openly dissatisfied with the actions of the Israeli government concerning its treatment of Palestinians — the ASA is abandoning its mission of fostering American culture-related exploration.
In a recently published blog post, Wesleyan University student Jacob Seltzer notes that the ASA refers to the “Israeli occupation of Palestine,” rather than to the “Israeli occupation of the West Bank” in online press releases defending the boycott. The ASA also suggests inherent duplicity between the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, apartheid, and the destruction of indigenous American cultures committed by colonialist forces. The root causes of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are remarkably complex and distinctive unto themselves. The language employed by the ASA is at once derisive and suggestive of doubt as to whether or not the ASA recognizes the legitimacy of the state of Israel.
The ASA proclaims itself to be “open to colleges … and other institutions sympathetic to the aims of the association,” and Israeli institutions now exist as the only exceptions. We feel it is necessary to question the ASA’s decision not to target university systems in other countries known to enforce laws hindering freedom of speech, criminalizing homosexuality, and limiting access to higher education based on race or gender (this argument appears in Michael Roth’s recent opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times).
J Street U’s largest problem with the boycott, and with the BDS movement in general, is its polarizing and counterproductive effect on domestic dialogue surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Already, New York State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver has written a bill proposing the halt of state funding toward the ASA.
If passed, this bill will ban public universities from contributing money to the ASA and other such organizations that have adopted politically motivated academic boycotts against New York State-accredited universities abroad. We argue that the bill itself illustrates a tragic fracturing of public debate as triggered by the ASA’s boycott. This exemplifies the type of communication breakdown J Street U seeks to combat in its pro-peace, pro-dialogue organizing work.
In affirming Kenyon’s withdrawal from the ASA, American Studies Department Chair Peter Rutkoff and President Sean Decatur are not distancing Kenyon from any increased dialogue surrounding Israel and Palestine; they are distancing Kenyon from the ASA’s gravely misled attempt to affect change.
Julie Hartman ’15 is an American studies major from Long Island, NY. She can be reached at hartmanj@kenyon.